The below lesson is an excerpt from my upcoming book, When Not If: A CEO's Guide to Overcoming Adversity, Forbes Book, January 2024.
Lesson: Another critical rule for overcoming adversity is we must communicate our own narrative. Perception is reality, and vacuums will be filled by your opponents if you do not act quickly and decisively to control the information. If you don’t control your narrative, your adversaries will. Remember the wisdom of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street: “The most valuable commodity I know of is information.”
I made a huge mistake as the CEO by not attempting to release our own narrative when the black swan walked into our office reception area. As all business leaders know, the attorneys’ first instructions are to never say a word, to not speak to investigators, to not respond to reporters, and to not promulgate our own press releases.
I now believe this to be a terribly wrong strategy. Of course, never agree to speak to the police or FBI without an attorney present (read James Duane’s You Have the Right to Remain Innocent). But in terms of operating in today’s online, interconnected world, it’s critical for any beleaguered firm to have a narrative that can be offered as an alternative to the version of events represented by critics or regulators. Otherwise, the narrative of the adversaries, unrefuted, becomes reality so much that it becomes almost impossible for anyone to consider an alternative is even possible.
“You need a story to displace a story,” Nassim Taleb writes in Black Swan, “When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.”
I failed by not speaking our truth. My first step should have been to engage a crisis communications firm to help us shape and publicize a more correct version of the story. The vacuum of information I tolerated caused all our stakeholders to rely on whatever the newspapers would print. And since we weren’t talking, the media had little else to go on but the government’s self-serving news releases.
It was my responsibility to speak up for my company, my employees, and myself, but I blew it. Fear can be crippling, and I did not have the courage to stand up to Goliath at this point. Although there is no way to know for sure, it’s possible that had we mounted an aggressive media campaign standing up against what we perceived to be an ill-advised persecution, we might have secured some allies, and the regulators may have backed off in part or in whole. Not communicating forcefully was one more critical error that sealed my fate and created so much economic pain for so many people undeserving of distress.
If you don’t control your narrative, your adversaries will. Please learn from my mistakes!
Have a great week!